Introduction to Cinematic Vampires

For almost ninety-five years, from THE DEVIL'S CASTLE (1896) to BRAM STOKER'S DRACULA (1992), the vampire has freely stalked movie theatres and preyed upon the willing patrons of over three hundred films. Though his origins may have been lost in the cave etchings of primeval mythology, obscured by the superstitions of folklore, or exploited by the "penny-dreadfuls" of Victorian melodrama, the vampire has remained a popular subject for motion pictures and television. The novel DRACULA, for example, has been adapted for the silver screen more times than any other book and has inspired countless imitations, sequels, parodies, and spoofs! The words "vampire" and "Dracula" have become synonymous with sexual seduction, power, and domination, and are an integral part of our daily vocabulary. And with the increasing number of major motion pictures currently in production (fourteen), the vampire film continues to be a lively and prominent form of entertainment. Perhaps the reason for its longevity and prolificacy has to do with a message that is universal; or perhaps it has something to do with myth and our collective unconscious. In either case, many media students, film critics, historians (this author among them), and filmgoers contend that the vampire film has been largely responsible for popularizing the horror genre. This seems like an enormous claim, but there may be some validity to that contention, considering its humble beginnings and progenitors as well as its world wide acclaim. The purpose, then, of this study is to examine the role of the vampire in the cinema and discover why this particular motif continues to be a ubiquitous part of our popular culture.

The vampire or Dracula image is one that has instant recognition throughout most of the world in both print and media forms, and it is an icon which we become familiar with from the time we are old enough to color in a coloring book, watch a television show, or read. Almost any first or second grade child (as well as many pre-schoolers) can identify the vampiric characters of Count "Count" from "Sesame Street," Count Duckula from the noted British cartoon series (of the same name), or Count Chocula from their favorite General Mills cereal. As they grow older and become consumers, adolescents (as well as many adults) are attracted to print advertisements and radio/television commercials which feature Count Dracula as a spokesman for products as diverse as men's toiletries (from Gillette Industries) to sugarless gum (Trident) to copper-top batteries (Duracell). [Notation: the product line doesn't stop there either; over the years, the vampire image has been associated with mouthwash, cat food, alcohol, fruit juice, pizza, security systems, and two dozen other items. During the Halloween season,the product line nearly doubles with the large variety of greeting cards, party favors, candy, centerpieces, napkins, and paper plates that feature Count Dracula or some other noted vampire (Vampirella, Vampira, Elvira - to name a few).] Children of all ages dress in the traditional black cape and fangs and gain instant identification of character, while celebrating the curious holiday of demons, witches, and other creatures of the night. Throughout the rest of the year, contributors to more than a dozen scholarly journals (including a special newsletter from MENSA) regularly discuss the psychological, sociological, anthropological, and literary merits of the most famous creature who never lived. It is quite obvious that the vampire image has had a major impact on so many levels of contemporary society, as with cultures of the past.

Superstitions, myths, and legends about the vampire can be found - with divergent variations - in almost every culture in the world. Most of the stories date back thousands of years and have been handed down orally from generation to generation. The single element, which seems to unite even the most diverse tradition, is the belief that the vampire is a dead person who returns from the grave to suck the life (ie: blood) from living persons. This conception of the vampire, known as nosferatu (the "undead"), is probably the most common among mid-European, Slavonic peoples, particularly in the Balkan countries, and in Hungary, Bohemia, Moravia, and Silesia. [Notation: Besides stories in folklore, actual documentation of historical vampires dates from the late Seventeenth Century.] In White Russia and parts of the Ukraine, the vampire is also identified as a wizard, or sorceror, who seeks to destroy the living. In Greece, the broncolaia or bourkabakos - a curious crossing of the vampire and werewolf legends - steals the heart of the living during certain lunar phases. The traditions are not, however, exclusively European. The Polynesians' tii, the Malayans' hantu penyardin, and the Karens' kephn are vampires who not only devour blood but also human souls. They appear as dog-headed, water demons from the sea. In Africa, the vampire is a demonic servant who steals the souls of the unfaithful. Many obvious ties link this tradition to zombie and voodoo worship. In China, vampires are mischievous shape-changers who, much like the jinn, attack babies and other helpless individuals. The United States, Britain, and other English-speaking countries have no established traditions of their own (beyond certain legends of the Native American Indian) and have borrowed many of the familiar precepts from their European forebears. But regardless of the origins or their diversity, the various beliefs all suggest that there is much more to the vampire myth than simply superstition.

Thematically, the modern vampire story deals with the disturbing survival of romantic ideals (represented by the vampire) in an era of industrialism or scientific rationalism (contemporary society). That presupposition - while it may have taken on different forms in the last ninety-five years - lies at the very core of the vampire film. Magic and any force of the supernatural no longer has a place in a world where Edison's lightbulb has replaced the gas lamp, yet the vampire does attempt to survive, challenging the new order with his antiquated methods. Those roots of discontentment lie not only in the classic stories of CARMILLA by Sheridan Le Fanu, THE VAMPYRE by John Polidori, and DRACULA, to which many vampire films owe as source materials, but also in older, literary conventions and attitudes from Judeo-Christian mythology and the Medieval morality play. Both the legend of Lilith and the story of Satan are parables of human presumption - about man (or demi-god) playing God - that predate the Dracula story by some five thousand years. Lilith, the first wife to Adam according to The Talmud and other Semitic writings, refused to concede to her husband's superiority and was damned to walk the earth in search of human blood--forever. Satan, the most beautiful angel in Judeo-Christian mythology, tried to become like God at the cost of great suffering and eternal damnation. Both acts challenge the natural order of things, and both individuals suffer similar punishment for their arrogance. Similarly, the medieval story of Dr. Faustus (though not strictly a vampire tale) portrays a man who is willing to sell his soul to the Devil for an eternal life of pleasure. Faust, like Lilith and Satan, openly defies God and must be destroyed in order to preserve the spiritual foundations of the Judeo-Christian faith. And this common theme is also central to our understanding of the vampire mythos.

Because it also draws from such a rich literary heritage, questions about the nature of life and death, good and evil, science and faith can also be found in most, well-written vampire stories. Joseph Campbell, in his treatise on the power of myth in literature (The Hero With a Thousand Faces), recognized that man chose certain archetypes and symbols to deal with those universal questions. The vampire, as the embodiment of Romantic ideas, is the ultimate Byronic hero - an outcast who, like Milton's Satan in PARADISE LOST or Goethe's Faust, has rejected God's salvation in favor of his own version of immortality, or life after death. Clearly, the "gothic" romances of the last two hundred years have provided a wealth of mythopoetic characters who are no more than archetypes or symbols that fit this pattern.

Carmilla, the seductive beauty of Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu's novella (of the same name), is the archetype for the first female vampire and a symbol of sexual deviancy (inherent in many vampire stories). When her carriage is overturned in a highway accident, Carmilla is taken to a wealthy, Austrian estate. There, she meets and eventually seduces Laura, the innocent daughter of the household. What she fails to realize is that the Lesbian relationship calls attention to herself and reveals the ages-old vampire Mircalla, Countess Karnstein. Lord Ruthven, the first great fictional vampire from John Polidori's THE VAMPYRE, dresses, speaks, and in general performs like a nobleman; but there is a dark, mysterious (even dangerous) side to his nature that his traveling companion Aubrey eventually notices. Ruthven represents beauty and power, which are both seductive, as well as a tragic side, which echoes Satan's sentiments in Milton's epic poem: "Better to rule in Hell than serve in Heaven." Unfortunately, Aubrey fails to recognize his friend as evil until it is too late: the vampire has already seduced and destroyed his innocent sister.

Count Dracula is the quintessential vampire and symbol of romanticism, immortality, sexuality, aggression, and power. Having dominated his Transylvanian homeland for centuries, he moves into Carfax Abbey and instantly attempts to impose his own values and way of life upon the citizenry of England. At first, he is welcomed into the finest homes and quickly establishes himself as a visiting nobleman and a man of great importance. His old-world charms and mysterious sexual allure causes heart flutters in Mina Murray, Lucy Westenra, and other women he encounters. However, the charm and sexual allure are merely illusionary. Dracula intends to feed upon his female conquests, and in order to fully satisfy his needs, he must dominate them completely--both body and soul. Unfortunately for Dracula, his control becomes unraveled with the appearance of a man of science. Dr. Abraham Van Helsing recognizes Dracula for what he is, and soon his first victim Lucy is staked, his servant Renfield imprisoned, and Mina placed under protective care. The vampire is forced to flee to his homeland to re-establish his world and power base. Bram Stoker's novel brilliantly explores that unknown territory of the soul where love, imagination, and mutual satisfaction become sex, fantasy, dominance, submission, and degradation of spirit -- all of which are central to our understanding of the vampire mythos.

Literary scholar James Twitchell, in his landmark article "The Vampire Myth," wrote that Dracula (along with his counterpart Frankenstein) was the most important archetype from Victorian literature and that his presence - in our popular culture - was significant. Besides being "the stranger in a strange land," the outsider, Dracula is a constant reminder of the many, old-world traditions that never quite made the transition to contemporary society. He is the romantic hero, like many of us, lost in an unfamiliar world of micro chips and computer technology. Whereas we might stumble around in ignorance or allow ourselves to be intimidated, Dracula refuses to acknowledge such reproaches, surviving at all costs. He also represents the symbol of eternal life; like Peter Pan, the boy who refused to grow up, Dracula remains unchanged in a changing society with no conscience or remorse for his actions. He knows only that he wants and satisfies those desires without any consideration for the consequences. He is the embodiment of evil without guilt, power without restraint, and sexuality without conscience. And, in essence, we secretly admire his ability to resolve or ignore problems with which we ourselves have difficulty in dealing.

Similarly, the act of blood ingestion works on many different levels. The most obvious reason is for food and nourishment. Traditional Christian mythology views blood as the lifeforce which Jesus Christ sacrificed in order to grant his followers eternal life. Since the vampire myth is a perversion of that belief, Dracula drinks the blood of the living as a short-cut to immortality. Less obvious reasons concern sexual deviance and the need for power or dominance over another. Dracula has total control over Lucy Westenra and Renfield through his manipulation of blood; for Lucy, the control is somewhat sexual, and for his servant, a bizarre sadomasochism. They can be free only after his control is broken. Finally, at the heart of the vampire myth is the desire for reunion with deceased loved ones. How many of us would leap at the opportunity to see our long-dead mother, father, or spouse? When Lucy appears from the grave, her fiance Arthur Holmwood is relieved to discover that she is not dead; but he soon realizes that she is part of the "undead" and must be destroyed in order to free her soul. Romanticism, power, sexuality, and visions of immortality - all key elements of the vampire myth - have provided (and continue to provide) endless fascination for the general public.

Like many mythological or literary stories, the vampire film relies heavily upon a set of traditions which have been handed down from generation to generation. For example, vampires are creatures of the night, afraid of the purifying rays of the sun; they must sleep in the earth of their native land, and they must drink the blood of willing victims in order to survive. They fear the Cross (of Jesus), or other holy implements, and can be destroyed by a stake through the heart. Like the morality play, which shares much of its ritual nature, plots of most vampire films deal with the struggle of ideals, good versus evil, in terms which provide katharsis (which means "cleansing" in Aristotlean tragedy) and good entertainment. Countless times, characters, like David Gray, Dr. Van Helsing, and Carl Kolchak, have ventured forth, into darkness, or hell, as a symbol of good to defeat Dracula, Carmilla, Count Yorga, or other symbols of evil. The story is a most familiar one, and each time it is replayed, audiences thrill to the ageless conflict.

The continued use of these common elements, set symbols, and ageless traditions has not diminished the interest, nor hampered the development, of the vampire film; but, rather, it has provided an arena for ingenuity and imagination to examine old themes and to explore new ones. Early in its history, the vampire film became not only a contemporary morality play but also a social and aesthetic reflection of its popular culture. And we can learn much about the attitudes of the period in which each film was made. For example, in NOSFERATU (1922), DRACULA (1931), and other early films, the nocturnal blood lust equated to a necrophilic passion, in which a demon, or vampire, preyed at night upon sleeping innocence. Prior to World War II, America pictured itself as a sleeping innocent, being preyed upon by the pestilence of poverty, injustice, and war. During the fifties and sixties, in films like THE HORROR OF DRACULA (1958), THE VAMPIRE LOVERS (1970), and others, the vampire was still cloaked in ritual and superstition, but had taken on an air of sadism and erotic sensationalism, much in keeping with our changing attitudes toward free love, drugs, campus revolt, the generation gap, and Vietnam. For the seventies and eighties, in an age which had rejected most religious and supernatural beliefs in favor of science and technology, the vampire was no longer simply a night stalker; in films, like MARTIN (1978), THE KEEP (1983), and LIFEFORCE-THE SPACE VAMPIRES (1985), he had become a maniacal psychotic, looking to drain not only blood but also the entire soul from its victims.

By implication then, the vampire film is a subject of established ritual and shifting and variable emphasis. It is also a unique art form which has contributed much to the evolution of the modern "horror" film. But in all fairness to the form the words "horror" and "monster" - when used in conjunction with "film" - are really misnomers, and largely inappropriate to our study of the vampire mythos. "Horror," by definition, suggests an intense, painful feeling of revulsion or loathing, and "monster' conjures images of an offensive grotesque who commits perverse acts of random violence. These terms might more amply describe the splatter films of Herschel Gordon Lewis or the highly successful FRIDAY THE 13TH series (in which a maniac in a hockey mask indiscriminately murders teenagers) - but certainly not any in the scope of this study. Vampire films transcend those common labels; they belong to the cinefantastique, or the cinema of the fantastic, which combines the literature of imagination with the mystique of motion picture technology.

Although the stories may be largely interchangeable, the films are distinguishable from one another through differences in visual styles, characterization, and approach. There are, in fact, five different types of vampire films, and even though any attempt at definitive classification is impossible, they may, perhaps, be roughly divided into the following categories:

  1. The Traditional Vampire Film - in which a human, through sympathetic magic, a curse, or the evil of another vampire, has been forced to seek blood as nourishment. Most DRACULA movies fit into this category, particularly the ones which attempt to establish a historical lineage for the noted vampire. Other films, like VAMPYR (1932), THE VAMPIRE LOVERS (1970), THE NIGHT STALKER (1972), VAMPIRE (1978), SALEM'S LOT (1979), FRIGHT NIGHT 1 & 2 (1985 & 1989), and many others, fit nicely into this category.
  2. The Alternate Species Film - in which the premise holds that somewhere at the beginning of our human history, there may have been another race of like-humans, a species which found immediate sustenance in the blood of its human cattle. What ever became of that race had been lost in antiquity, and they have purposely existed apart from its human counterparts. Although a relatively new concept, it had permeated most contemporary vampire novels, and is typified in films, like NIGHTWING (1979), THE HUNGER (1983), THE KEEP (1983), and NEAR DARK (1987). (Note: for his classic vampire film NOSFERATU (1922), F.W. Murnau, who envisioned his vampire as an off-shoot of another species, deserves the credit for this recent, cinematic conceit.)
  3. The Deranged, Psychotic Film - in which twisted humans think they are vampires and act out their fantasies in horrifyingly real ways. The concept, however deplorable it might seem, has its historic antecedents, such as the "Dusseldorf Vampire," who believed himself to be a real vampire and committed a series of bizarre and grotesque murders. Films, like THE TENDERNESS OF WOLVES (1978), MARTIN (1978), and FADE TO BLACK (1980), fit into this category.
  4. The Man-Made Vampire Film - in which a man, through accident of design, creates a vampire. This is a broad category, and encompasses films, like THE UNHOLY LOVE (1929), THE BAT WHISPERS (1930), THE RETURN OF DR. X (1939), THE LAST MAN ON EARTH (1964), and THE OMEGA MAN (1971). The key to most of these films is that man, by tinkering with the natural order of the universe, unleashes a horrible pestilence (in the form of vampires) upon those around him. (Conceptually, these films also fall into the study of the Frankenstein Mythos.)
  5. The Alien Vampire Film - in which the vampire is part of a race of beings from another planet. Although this borders on science fiction, there are a number of notable exceptions. DEMON PLANET (1965), QUEEN OF BLOOD (1966), HORROR OF THE BLOOD CREATURES (1971), and LIFEFORCE-THE SPACE VAMPIRES (1985) all belong to this category.

Whatever the category or its sociological importance, the vampire film does have a legitimate place in the cinema, as in every other art form, and is an integral part of our popular culture. It provides worthy entertainment, challenges the creative imagination, and utilizes the best in motion picture technology. We all know that not a single vampire stalks the streets of our cities; but, through the vampire film, and our willing suspension of disbelief, he still haunts our theatres and television parlours.

Copyright 1992 by John L. Flynn



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